Monday, June 2, 2008

Rules and Goals

Both competition and cooperation are strategies for achieving goals, with differing definitions of “who” is achieving the goals. If most of us are consciously or unconsciously working toward the goal of maximizing the happiness of ourselves and people related to us, regardless of the toll on the rest of Nature (and “other” members of our own population who we do not value), the negative consequences of our behavior are as much due to our goal as the effectiveness of our efforts.

The negative consequences, as I’ve described ad nauseam, include the destruction of ecosystems that support us and other species (as well as the direct extermination of those other species), which will likely result in our own demise. Enabling these consequences is the fact that there is a limited number of ecosystems, other species, easily accessible energy, and economic resources (mainly labor). We are depleting these things at an exponential rate through consumption and degradation, faster than they are being replaced.

I can think of three possible strategies for dealing with this problem: We can change our goal; we can change the way we are attaining the goal; or we can simply stop what we are doing. The last strategy is what mathematicians commonly refer to as a “trivial solution” and is least likely to be implemented (unless of course we all die). Changing the goal may be almost as unlikely since it appears to be hardwired into us; but we may be able to append at least one other goal, namely maximizing the population to the far future (my second condition for an ideal world). Changing the way we attain the goal is akin to changing the rules of a game, which in this case would involve demanding that we not decrease the amount or quality of resources, whether they be ecological, energy, or human.

If changing rules and goals are the best way to channel our behavior to avoid disaster and gain the most for our species, the changes must either be accepted by everyone or enforced by the majority (risking the limitation of happiness for the people who disagree). Those who don’t value the common good or the other species that provide part of the infrastructure for that good are most likely to favor competition over cooperation, and could be expected to resist any mechanism for change such as government or education. The probable inevitability of a fraction of every population denying the value of others now and in the future may make it impossible to ever achieve an ideal world, but how the rest of the population chooses to deal with this fraction will most directly determine how close we can get.

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